February 22, 2012

3 days in March - Reaching for the goal

You've heard all the labels before when it comes to the NCAA tournament field. "Bubble team", "Cinderella", "Mid-Majors", "the little guy", "the undeserving", "bracket busters", and my personal favorite, "dance crashers". Other than being a "bubble team", NMSU basketball fits nicely in all of the other labels. Once again, NMSU basketball finds itself looking up and towards three days in March.

Prior to Thursday nights game against Hawai'i at home, the Aggies are 20-8 going 6-1 ever since the loss to Nevada, who sits atop the WAC standings. The Aggies may be the hottest team in the WAC right now and peaking at the right moment heading into March and the WAC tournament in Las Vegas, NV.

With only four WAC game remaining in the schedule, the Aggies have a decent shot at wrapping up second place, barring a complete meltdown by conference leader Nevada. The Aggies and Wolfpack meet in Reno, NV on Thursday, March 1st, a game that will be broadcast on ESPN2. Too little too late to catch #1 Nevada? Most likely, but you never know. Stranger things have happened.

So what does all this mean come the WAC tournament in March?

Well, as you might already know, the conference tournament winner gets the automatic bid or invitation to the NCAA tournament field of 64 (68 if you include the play-in games). Conference tournament winners advancing to the NCAA tournament is nothing new. Some college basketball purists love "Championship Week", others hate it, as they feel it's a way for "Weak conferences to benefit over other more deserving teams." It's hard to argue that point.

So should automatic bids be eliminated?

Case in point. Every year some teams feel they deserve an invitation to the NCAA tournament based on their "body of work". However, due to granting 31 teams the automatic bid for winning their conference tournament, someone always goes home angry and feeling disrespected by the NCAA Selection Committee. I feel their pain as NMSU in the past has been passed up for an NCAA bid. This happened a few times during NMSU's Big West days and having to battle then college basketball powerhouse, UNLV, for first place every season. It just didn't seem fair, but there are reasons why. Simply put, you must impress.

Forward to the 2011/12 Aggie basketball season.

NMSU must win the WAC tournament in order to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament. Nevada must win the WAC tournament to punch their ticket into the NCAA tournament. If the remaining season goes as predicted, the Wolfpack and Aggies will most likely face-off in the championship game of the WAC tournament for their right to advance into the post-season. NIT is a decent consolation prize, but the NCAA tournament is where it's at. It's where you want to be come March. Not in the NIT. Not in the CBI. And certainly not at home on your couch watching everybody else play on.

If you follow most polls, out of the 32 conferences, the WAC currently comes in at #11 in conference power rankings. Not bad, but certainly not good enough to warrant an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. This has been a down year for the WAC. Actually, it's been that way now for at least three years. The conference simply isn't competitive enough on a national level to get more than an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

Where do the Aggies go from here?

With four games remaining, it's a pretty easy call that the Aggies most likely will go 3-1 in that four-game stretch. The Nevada game in Reno will be tough. And let's not look past Fresno State at their place. A loss at home to Hawai'i or San Jose State leaves the Aggies with a 1-3 finish. If so, they'll be staring most likely at a 4th place finish in the WAC and in the same bracket with #1 Nevada, all things assumed.

Bottom line, win out, and it all comes down to the 3 Days in March.

Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 10th, at 9:00pm, ESPN2.

At least we're hoping that's how it'll play out. Again.


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